Our friends at Artisan Wine Depot invited us over for a Saturday (May 8) afternoon tasting of pinots from The Donum Estate. Donum pinots are pricey, including one with a suggested retail of $90. Is it possible that there is a pinot noir worth $90 a bottle? We have drunk a few bottles of Hartford’s Arrendell which is about the same price. And we only thought the Arrendell was a little overpriced. For our conclusion, keep reading.
The real surprise in this tasting was wines from Robert Stemmler. Apparently Mr. Stemmler wanted to retire in the late 1990s. Donum bought the brand around 2001. According to Wines & Vines,
[Anne Moller-Racke] became more and more intent on developing Tula Vista Ranch as an estate, somewhat in the Burgundian mode, for artisanal wine production. When Allied-Domecq bought Buena Vista in 2001, she wisely retained Tula Vista, which she had renamed The Donum Estate, as a Racke holding (the company name), and began to develop it as the heart of a largely Pinot Noir-focused operation. She also plucked out the Robert Stemmler brand and brought it a long to Tula Vista.
More on Ms. Moller-Racke after we look at some of the wines.
The tasting opened with the 2012 Robert Stemmler Carneros ($25). Aromas of plum and black raspberries lead to spice and huckleberry on the palate. This wine is juicy and a real bargain.
Next up was the Stemmler 2012 Russian River Valley Winside Vineyard ($44). Norma describes this as “Lynmar-esque.” (Long-time readers will know about our affinity for Lynmar Estate pinots.) Flavors of plum, cherry, and spice lead to a somewhat unfortunate finish with hints of black licorice.
On to the high-end wines. The Donum Carneros Estate 2012 ($72) is on the big side, with a multitude of flavors. Starting with an earthy palate, the layers reveal cranberry, herbs, and cedar. This one can use a year or two in the bottle before you open it.
Donum also makes a Russian River Valley blend ($72). This is pretty good, but too sophisticated for our palates. At this price we prefer Lynmar or Hartford. Aromas of strawberries and red raspberries are followed by black raspberry and licorice on the palate. The finish features firm tannins with a hint of oak.
And now for the top of the line: the Donum Ten Oaks pinot noir 2012 Sonoma County ($90). This wine might actually be worth the price. This is also too sophisticated for our palates. But we could tell we were tasting something very special. We rely on the Wine Spectator’s review. “Fresh and snappy, with vibrant mineral, red berry, spice and red licorice flavors. Ends with firm, fine-grained tannins and good length.”
And again, we discover that our aging palates are simply not discerning enough to appreciate what The Donum Estate is doing. But we are certain that Anne Moller-Racke knows what she’s doing. Let’s take a closer look at her history.
Anne arrived in California in 1981 with her then-husband Marcus. The Moller-Racke family had just bought the historic Buena Vista winery in Sonoma. Marcus was on-site to manage the transition. Anne worked in the tasting room. An inauspicious beginning for a fine career. After the transition to new ownership was complete, Anne took over the job of managing the vineyard. This move from pouring and talking to getting her fingernails dirty allowed her to realize that she really liked the entire winemaking process from grapegrowing through bottling.
Anne and Marcus divorced in 1991. (Calm down, guys. She is currently married to Saul Gropman.) She held on to the Tula Vista Ranch vineyard. After a few years in college, she returned to manage the vineyard at Buena Vista. Yes, she was working for her ex-husband who had decamped to Germany.
In 2001 Buena Vista was sold to Allied-Domecq. Anne kept Tula Vista which she renamed The Donum Estate. About this time, Robert Stemmler wanted to retire, so Anne bought the brand. Backed by Racke Holdings, a family company, she focused on Burgundy-style pinot noirs. In 2003 Donum Estate released their first wine, a 2001 pinot noir.
Updating to 2014, Anne is the vice-chair of the reconstituted Carneros Vintners Alliance.
Speaking to the group of growers and winemakers, the board’s vice chair Anne Moller-Racke, who is the president of the Donum Estate, said she was thrilled to see the renewed focus of the alliance. She said the collaborative and cooperative spirit of the region is part of what sets Carneros apart—as well as the area’s excellent Chardonnay. “For myself, I think we should always pay more attention to Chardonnay,” she said.
We’ll forgive her for her heresy as long as she keeps making great pinot!
 Walker, Larry, ” Anne Moller-Racke’s Quest: The Ultimate Pinot Noir.”Wines & Vines, October, 2004, pp. 18-21. Available on the Stemmler website at http://www.robertstemmlerwinery.com/trade_media/PDFs/articles/quest_ultimate_pinot.pdf.
 Walker, op. cit.
 Adams, Andrew, “Carneros Wine Alliance Adopts New Focus.” Wines & Vines, April 2, 2014. Available at http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=130588